Sometimes an audio component punches so far above its weight that even the snootiest critics must acknowledge it. That happened back in 2000, when a small Boston startup called Tivoli Audio launched the Model One. Stereophile voted it a runner-up in its sacred “Analog Source” category. This monaural tabletop radio was shockingly good at locking in tightly spaced signals and pulling in low-power college stations—a cell phone chip provided the ultra-sensitive reception—that hi-fi geeks patched its stereo signal through the preamp of their pricy rack rigs, and used the thing as a bargain-basement tuner.
Tivoli Audio Model One Digital
This digital refresh of the classic Tivoli Model One radio pumps out a lot of dBs with surprisingly low distortion. Small footprint. The design will please Buddhist monks and shelter porn editors.
A serious lapse in build quality will rankle some. The ridiculously high gear ratio of the jumbo tuning wheel makes FM surfing tedious.
Most people, though, didn’t buy this little gem to perform geeky parlor tricks. The Model One’s mass appeal was hi-fi at a low price ($99). It looked cool, too. The sober retro design—Charles and Ray Eames studio, circa the 1950s, springs to mind—resonated with tastemakers, and colorful faceplates were an option. It became the default radio for NPR addicts and their college dorm kids, who plugged in their iPods to listen to crappy MP3 files.
Seventeen years later, the successor to the Model One has finally arrived. It’s a classic table-top radio, updated with wireless technology, loaded with streaming options, and priced at triple the cost of the original.
Henry Kloss is the nearest thing to a rock star the audio engineering profession has ever seen. Here’s all you need to know about Mr. Kloss: He started the home hi-fi phenomenon in 1952 by inventing the AR-1, the first commercial acoustic suspension speaker. Collectors covet those early Acoustic Research speakers like sneakerheads covet the 1985 Air Jordan 1. This guy also designed some of the first audio devices to use transistors, and figured out how to drop Dolby B noise reduction into a cassette deck. Along the way, he found time to perfect the FM table radio; his original KLH Model 8 can command up to four-figures on the used market. Kloss’ swan song, the Model One, was released just a year before his death. This Tivoli reboot has a reputation to live up to.
With only two controls up front (small function/volume button; large “Mod Bezel” for FM tuning and programming) and nothing but the Tivoli logo silk-screened on the faceplate, the Model One Digital is even more stripped-down than its predecessor. This design will appeal to Zen practitioners, Donald Judd fans, and anyone who collects vintage Scandinavian furniture. White and black cabinets are available, but the most appealing choice is the versatile “walnut/gray.” It’s only a matter of time before this tastefully stained cabinet, with contrasting nubby grill material, surfaces in the background of a DWR catalog. And why not? It’s hard to find fault with a pretty box made of furniture-grade wood, brushed aluminum, and cloth that looks like a gray flannel pulled from the swatch book of a bespoke tailor.
Makers of top-shelf audio equipment take pride in the precise engineering tolerances baked into their hardware. A heavy and deeply knurled knob planted on a high-end tube amp isn’t there just for looks. When an audiophile rotates it and hears those resonant “clicks,” he’s transported to a rarefied state of consciousness that somebody who buys their stereo gear at Costco will never know. You don’t expect to get that kind of A-plus haptic feedback from a $300 table radio. On the other hand, you don’t expect the on/off button to wiggle under your finger like a trapped water bug either. Engineers typically specify small silicone parts (concealed behind the faceplate) to control tolerances and transmit the pleasant touch sensations that the fans of quality electronics demand. These synthetic membranes or “boots” give buttons and switches something that industrial designers call “switch feel” and “snap force.” Did Tivoli forget the boots, or is this a tooling SNAFU that no amount of silicone could fix? The build quality of Tivoli’s latest project comes up short, and the culprit is that very flimsy button. On a scale of 1 to 10, 10 being “As Switchy and Snappy As It Gets,” the on/off button scores an abysmal 2.
Button issues aside, the big question remains: Does this new Model One Digital sound as good as the Henry Kloss’ original Model One? Unless you’re parked right in front of the speaker grill, the digital refresh actually sounds better. An intensive A/B listening session revealed that at low volume the older Model One projects a richer and more pleasing tone. That kind of near-field listening experience is fine for sampling an MLB broadcast or the latest installment of This American Life, but if you want a small wireless player to pump more exciting sound levels into a spacious room with minimal distortion, the Model One Digital runs sonic circles around its older sibling.
The decibels tell the story. The Model One average dB reading was 87.7, and maxed out at 102.5; the Model One Digital average dB reading was 94.6, and maxed out at 110.7 (readings were recorded three inches from the speaker grills). Just download the Tivoli Audio Art app and sync up. This unit is Wi-Fi-enabled, Bluetooth-ready, and comes ready to stream with Tune In, Spotify Connect, Deezer, and Tidal.
The Model One Digital also reveals impressive detail. Even the bass response, almost always anemic in a unit this size, provides a credible thump, thanks to a 3.5-inch rear-slotted port. Whether Wi-Fi or BT, the signal is rock-solid and has the kind of dynamic range that belies the unit’s dimensions (it’s a shade larger than the original Model One).
Radio stations can be enjoyed using either Tune In’s streaming service or good old terrestrial means. Frequency modulation enthusiasts be forewarned: the high gear ratio that’s built into such a large tuning dial, not to mention the lack of a flywheel, makes surfing the FM band an arduous task (the gear ratio of the Model One was a user-friendly 5:1). Depending on your location and the strength the signal, deploying the anachronistic and damage-prone telescoping antenna may be necessary.
Those who crave even better sound reproduction can select matching components from the Tivoli Audio “Art” collection. For stereo, simply Wi-Fi-connect to the Cube, a companion speaker about the size of a coffee mug. There’s also a larger circular speaker that’s quite attractive called the Art. It looks like something Isamu Noguchi might have designed for the single-ended triode rig in his Long Island City atelier. The anti-Sonos crowd will be pleased to know that a multi-room wireless home network is possible, too. Any combination of Cubes and Arts—up to 24 in total—can be scattered throughout your newly renovated ICBM missile silo in Wichita, Kansas. Just press “Party Mode” to instantly connect the sonic-boom daisy chain.
Expandability, versatility, and smart design make the Model One Digital a worthy upgrade. And if the $300 price tag seems a bit rich, consider putting your original Model One up on eBay to earn yourself a loyalty discount.